A Pair of Blue Eyes was Hardy’s third published novel & I think it’s the first that could be described as typical Hardy. By that I mean that he uses irony & fate in this novel as he does in his more accomplished novels, The Mayor of Casterbridge & Far From The Madding Crowd. This is also an interesting novel because the situation & setting are closely linked to Hardy’s own early life & his first meeting with his first wife Emma.
The plot of A Pair of Blue Eyes concerns three people who are all innocents in their own way. Stephen Smith, a young architect’s assistant is sent from his London office to a village in Cornwall to look at the tower of the church with a view to rebuilding it. Stephen stays with the rector, Christopher Swancourt, & is immediately attracted to Elfride, the rector’s beautiful daughter. Elfride has led a sheltered life. Her father is a widower & he has kept Elfride at home. She’s not well-educated or socially experienced. She has barely seen a handsome young man so when Stephen arrives, she is as ready to fall in love as he is. Mr Swancourt is a snob & very socially conscious. Stephen is treated as an honoured guest & the growing attraction between the young people is smiled upon until it emerges that Stephen is the son of the local stone mason & builder. Stephen’s parents are Mr Swancourt’s parishioners &, as he sees it, social inferiors. Stephen’s efforts to educate himself & enter a profession are nothing to the fact of his lowly origins. Mr Swancourt forbids the relationship.
Stephen & Elfride continue to correspond & decide to force the issue by running away & marrying. They meet in Plymouth but discover that it’s too late for them to be married that day. They decide to carry on to London & marry there the next morning. Elfride becomes more uneasy as the journey continues & when they reach London, she takes fright & wants to go home. Stephen is too inexperienced & self-effacing to insist on her staying in London & he accompanies Elfride back on the next train. When they reach home, no one recognizes them except Mrs Jethway, a woman who already holds a grudge against Elfride. Mrs Jethway’s son had been in love with Elfride but she had rejected his proposals & shortly after, he died. Mrs Jethway blames Elfride for his death & her grief has become a monomania. However, nothing is said, the lovers are not discovered. Shortly after, Stephen has an opportunity to further his career & maybe make his fortune by going out to India. He leaves Elfride, pledging his undying love & they continue secretly writing to each other.
Mr Swancourt remarries &, through his new wife, Elfride is introduced to Henry Knight, a man in his 30s who is a writer & critic living in London. Henry Knight also knows Stephen, as he had been his mentor & helped his education. Knight is an innocent too as he has never been in love & has a vision of womanhood gained from reading rather than living. When he falls in love with Elfride, he believes her to be completely innocent, unkissed & unloved. To Knight, this is her main charm. Elfride begins to forget Stephen & falls in love with Knight & they become engaged. She gradually becomes uneasy as she learns more of his ideas of love & becomes frightened that he will stop loving her if he discovers her relationship with Stephen. She is also haunted by Mrs Jethway who keeps hinting that she will tell Knight what she knows about Elfride’s relationships with her son & Stephen. Then, Stephen returns after a successful time in India & the scene is set for revelations & misery.
Hardy’s writing about landscape & place is always one of his attractions for me & his writing about Cornwall is very beautiful. There are several scenes with the characters walking on the clifftops near Beeny Cliff, including a memorable scene when Knight falls over the cliff & is left hanging on by his fingers until Elfride comes to his rescue by constructing a rope from her petticoats. Endelstow in the book is based on St Juliot where Hardy went as a young man to look at the local church & met his first wife, Emma & their social situations were very similar but that seems to be the only autobiographical element in the book. Death is also ever-present & there’s a wonderful scene in the church where several villagers, including Stephen’s father, are renovating the burial vault of the Lord Luxellian of the manor to accommodate his wife. It’s like the gravedigger’s scene in Hamlet as the men stop work & eat their lunch sitting on the coffins of long-dead Luxellians.
Later that same day, newly-engaged Knight & Elfride are walking near the church & go into the vault to see how the work progresses, meeting up with Stephen, who has returned home to visit his parents. This is such an uncomfortable scene, as Stephen watches the young woman he thought was his own fiancée on the arm of another man, his friend & mentor. Elfride is terrified that Stephen will speak & Knight is oblivious to all these undercurrents & thinks Stephen awkward & Elfride overcome by the close atmosphere. It’s not until the final pages of the book that another irony in this scene is revealed.
I love Hardy’s obsession with Fate although it can be a little contrived as when Elfride finds herself kissing Stephen & later, Henry Knight, while sitting on the tombstone of poor young Jethway. If you love Hardy, A Pair of Blue Eyes is a chance to catch him at the beginning of his career with all his major themes & preoccupations in place, just waiting for the touch of genius that came later.